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From Collins to Future Submarines: Learning the lessons of project management

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As the nation gears up to build the multibillion-dollar Future Submarine Program, how can project managers apply the lessons learned from Collins Class to avoid repeating the mistakes, industrial shortfalls and delivery delays with Australia’s future submarines.

In early 2016, Australian Institute of Project Management chief executive Yvonne Butler announced the institute’s support of the decision made by the government to award the submarine contract to DCNS, France’s state-controlled naval shipbuilding contractor. Since then, there have been numerous round table negotiations with an emphasis on value for money but also, more importantly, local South Australian engagement.

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Any well-run project, however, starts with lessons learned, which we certainly hope have been undertaken with those involved in the Collins Class submarine development program as well as the AWD program.

Butler was quoted as suggesting that "… this contract will see further focus put on the importance and demand for qualified and competent Australian project managers".

I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment having worked within the realms of project management for nearly 34 years. 

However, with all things ‘project management’ the core philosophy of project controls has been neglected. Organisations fail to realise that 70 per cent of project management, if not more, is related to the project control discipline and major lessons learned should be shared with the program itself. 

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In 1993, I was fortunate enough to sit with my wife alongside naval and political dignitaries at the launch of the first Collins Class submarine as part of the project scheduling team that set the tone for project controls at ASC. Had it not been for the dedicated delivery team, who were expected to deliver something that Adelaide had never built before, the project would have been an immense failure. 

Yes, there were teething issues – it’s no hidden secret that the boat was incomplete at launch, but going back to those early 90s this type of R&D project was unheard of. 

Over the course of several years now, I like many of the original team, haven’t even been queried as to the previous program of work. Like many of my colleagues, we were the first to undertake planning and controls philosophies to something extremely new and unheard of in South Australia. I rang several colleagues recently and, like myself, they haven’t been approached. While the French may deliver similar projects elsewhere, Australia is certainly a different place to operate. 

The workforce that was originally involved with Collins needs to be consulted on the lessons we learned during the project. That means ensuring the workforce planning, manufacturing infrastructure, component consolidation and reporting on key performance targets are used to address the issues raised during Collins.  

One only needs to look at the cost of manufacturing in Australia and the unionisation of work forces to extrapolate significant differences! 

We need to set up the structures very early on in the Future Submarine program. Identify the key areas of reporting and consistency in modelling and reporting to ensure the seamless flow of information.  

Like any new project, training was an immense issue as each boat arrived. New technology, in any sector not just defence, requires training and a good handover procedure. This must be planned as early as possible to avoid a back-ended bow wave of training and completion work. 

Some of the lessons learned from this project have never been totally captured. However, I would like to outline a few of the issues that arose that were handled by the project scheduling team: 

  1. Compartmentalisation of the project in the initial stages meant that changes in time and costs were not automatically recognised by other parts of the project. My first role on the project was to normalise and integrate seven disparate schedules into one cohesive program that was automatically scheduled for every update. 
  1. The overarching/integrated schedule was stripped of superfluous detail. The detail was contained in specific schedules, which transmitted summary data on a regular basis to the integrated schedule. This proved to be a good strategy as no one schedule ever got so large that it became unwieldy and impossible to control. Control was at the work face using the individual detail schedules. 
  1. Resource scheduling is critical in large projects, however very little upfront resource scheduling was performed on the Collins Class submarines build. The one resource that most people forget is space. One of my roles was to plan the hull production through the hull workshop. Unfortunately, when I applied the space allowed to the time it took to produce each section we found there was not enough space in the hull shop.

Fundamentally, it is about keeping the shipbuilding process going to minimise the atrophy of skills, planning and industrial capability as we've seen between Collins, Air Warfare Destroyer and, potentially, Future Submarines. 

Greg Betros is the director of GBA Projects based in Adelaide. 

From Collins to Future Submarines: Learning the lessons of project management
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